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Penn State Alumni Association Charleston Chapter---Charleston, SC

April 9, 2016

The Lessons of Tradition and History

It is great to be here—I have spoken to dozens of chapters in three time zones from Boston to LA and many places in between. The first chapter I spoke to after coming to coach at Penn State was in Lewisburg, PA in April of 1995—over two decades ago.


I am thrilled to be here. As evidenced by the photos my wife texted me I want all of you to know that this morning April 9th, 2016 there was snow on the ground at Penn State……Just think in the old days you might have been trudging across the snow-covered barren windy tundra of Lot 80 to get your car.


I want to say a particular hello to Penn Stater Paul Vannatta. About a year ago I was here to be part of a panel discussion with Charleston-based Darkness to Light an organization that fights to end the scourge of Child Sexual Abuse Nationwide. Paul was one of the people in this community that took the lead on this difficult issue.


Darkness to Light has a direct connection to State College. They have helped the Centre County YMCA and the newly created Children’s Advocacy Center in State College train adults from all walks of life to recognize the signs and to protect our children.


One of the last things that my father wrote on a pad on the last day in his own home—was that perhaps the silver lining of all that had happened was that there would be some good that could come of this.


You see that was how Joe Paterno always looked at the world—he would say “It’s not what happens to you in life that matters—it is how you react to what happens that matters.”


Paul Vannatta is an example of reacting in a positive manner—he is an example of what Penn Staters have always been about—service to others—so I thank him for that.


So here we are around 700 miles from our common home at Penn State yet there is a feeling of connection, friendship and the same vibe we would feel on a Saturday Night at the Skellar or the Phyrst….although obviously in a slightly more upscale setting.


If we are not gathered at Penn State, Charleston is a pretty nice place to be together. This has been one of my favorite cities for a long time.


Going back to my college days I have spent a lot of time here over the years. In college I had a girlfriend whose mother lived on James Island. We made a bunch of trips I spent time everywhere from James Island to Kiawah, to Folly Beach to the Battery to The College of Charleston to Fort Sumter and in 1988 I even ate oysters on newspapers at a picnic table in a cinder block shack called Bowen’s Island.


For some reason my girlfriend’s mother may not have wanted her daughter and I eating a whole lot of oysters so she also ordered us some fried fish. I expected fried fish that would look something like you’d get from Mrs Pauls in the grocery store frozen section ……what I got was the whole damn fish skin, bones fins and all with the eyeballs looking right at me…..


That was a long time ago. There are good memories here.


Also I love history and this is a city that anyone who loves history can identify with. Everywhere you look the signs of days gone past are around you. One thing about the Deep South is an abiding love of and deep respect for their history.


It was the famous Mississippian William Faulkner who wrote about the South “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


That sentiment certainly is a part of this city. As you walk the streets and see the small gardens between houses that have stood for centuries, you smell the soil, the fragrance of the blooms and the air takes on an earthy richness. 


That is tribute to the respect for the past, for tradition. It gives people a true sense of self to know where they came from. is everywhere around you when you walk the streets of this city.


That is what I want to talk about tonight—the ideas of tradition and history. Tradition and History….we know something about that at Penn State.


Penn State began as a Farmer’s High School in 1855. From the humble beginnings of Old Main the university has seen changes that would make the place unrecognizable to the handful of students who opened that school back then.


Yet the tradition and history that began in those days continue to flow and circulate pumping through the hearts and veins of Penn Staters from all eras.


I started at Penn State in 1986---and yet there are things that are common to my experience that are common to people who came before me and people who came after me. The sun still rises over Mount Nittany, the stacks in Pattee Library are still quiet and creepy, the Creamery ice cream is still the best you’ve ever tasted, the fake chimes of Old Main still mark each quarter hour and there are still tests to prepare for and papers to write.


For over a century and a half young people have left their homes to come to Penn State with the hopes that they would leave the university better prepared for the future. They arrived as the Alma Mater reminds us “at childhood’s gate, shapeless in the hands of fate”.


For so many people it was and is and will always be home.


And for all Penn Staters our time there was always too long when we were there but far too short when we left and once crossing into the real world we truly recognized how special it all was. 


Among the Traditions of Penn State was an era of football that stood for Success With Honor. It was a time when we prided ourselves on being unique, on carrying a chip on our shoulder because win or lose we did things the right way.


We carried ourselves with a confidence that we had prepared to compete to the fullest extent of our abilities. In each Saturday’s battle, win or lose, we recognized the valor and honor that comes with competing to the fullest of our abilities and in leaving the field of competition exhausted but satisfied that we had not sacrificed the ideals of honest competition to gain an edge.

This past weekend I ran into two prominent former Penn State players—two guys I had not seen in a number of years.


In talking about the NCAA—a favorite topic among former players—one of them said to me…..“You know what Jay—after every game whether the teams we played won or lost—deep down they wished they could trade places with us. They wished they were a part of our tradition. The people at the NCAA resented us.”


He may have been right, but it got me thinking about that Tradition and the lessons that we can all learn from Penn State Tradition.


Penn State in many ways had a tradition of inclusiveness. The University integrated in the late 1800s and just this past week Penn State basketball player Cumberland Posey was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.  He integrated Penn State basketball in 1909. In the 1940s Penn State football integrated long before most schools in the country.


That tradition of inclusiveness extended to the classroom where all student-athletes were given the same rigid demands to succeed academically. It was evident in the graduation rates for Black players that were always well above the national average and were equal to and surpassed the rates for white players.


But the Tradition of Penn State Football goes beyond that. In this day and age every team and every organization posts “core values”. For years at Penn State we didn’t need a list of core values to remind us who we are, why we were there and what we were there to get accomplished.


Penn State’s Tradition was first and foremost about the team. We had no names on our jerseys, we all wore the same white socks, the same black shoes and carried ourselves with class. When a player made a great play they were not to call attention to themselves but rather to celebrate with the teammates who had helped them make that play.


The same went for personal appearance.


Much like the military, and inspired by the New York Yankees Joe Paterno expected every coach and player to adhere to a strict and uniform code of personal appearance. This included shaving, cutting your hair and no earrings.

In 2016 and even in 2011 it seemed silly to some. But for those who got it they understood that it was not as though Joe Paterno judged people with long hair or beards—the idea was for everyone to give something up—something visible to be a part of the team. It was a lesson that being a part of Penn State Football was not a right but rather a special privilege that was earned by sacrificing personal preferences for the good of the team.


That ideal of shared sacrifice was something that was consistent across time, it was a standard of excellence that led to a lot of success on the field and more importantly in the classroom.

Today we hear people talk about “new” traditions. There is no such thing as a “new” tradition.


Tradition is excellence over time—and time measured in years and decades not days, weeks and months.


This morning on social media I was reminded that today is April 9th---the date being 4-09. And it got me thinking about what that means and it ties in perfectly to Tradition—a tradition of excellence that was measured in decades—and measured in Penn State Football’s excellence from the beginning days in 1887.


You see despite what some believe this is the truth—there is only one public school playing big-time college football whose athletic department has never been sanctioned by the NCAA for major violations in any sport---Penn State. Despite a crazy narrative that was crafted by the NCAA and the Freeh Report that still remains the same.


That is tradition….


But the Tradition that we had at Penn State went deeper. It was about team first.


Joe Paterno used to tell us as players and coaches that “This team is only as fast as our slowest player, as strong as our weakest player and as smart as the player who knows the least.”


That was his way of encouraging his coaches to coach every player as though they might be the starter. It was his way of making every player feel vested in improving every day in the classroom and on the practice field—and making them all feel vested in the outcome on the field every Saturday.


It was also a larger lesson for society—that we should fight to improve the lives of others; that a loss by one would be a loss for us all and that we stand tallest when we help others up.


It was that same attitude that inspired us all to understand that every day we either would get better or we would get worse—we would never stay the same. We understood that the will to win was important but that the will to prepare was vital.


These were calls to a tradition of unity, a tradition that brought us together not divided us. Maybe it is old school—maybe it’s just an antiquated ideal from another era.


But I have been blessed in my life to have worked for 2 Hall of Fame head coaches. In my professional, personal and political lives I have been fortunate to have met Presidents, Vice Presidents, Senators, Congressmen and women, Corporate CEOs, Championship Athletes and Coaches as well as great professors and writers.


My father and mother encouraged me to read to learn from history and great literature. With that I came to understand that at its core human nature has remained unchanged across the centuries.


The themes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can be seen in what happened at Penn State---and so too can the themes of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.


What these lessons teach us is that Tradition and history can and should always be respected as our greatest teachers.


We live in a time in 2016 that is very interesting to say the least. This election cycle is unlike anything we have seen—as I am sure the people of South Carolina know all too well.

We live in a time in 2016 that is very interesting to say the least. This election cycle is unlike anything we have seen—as I am sure the people of South Carolina know all too well.


We live in a time when our sense of history, our attention span and our ability to understand complex and serious issues does not stretch much further than the 140 character limit on Twitter.


That is a sad state of affairs. The truth is that the real problems we face usually require subtlety and nuance to understand.


But the real root of what has and will always set us apart as a University has not changed.


In the summer of 2011 Urban Meyer was working for ESPN and came to Penn State. His son spent the day in our football camp. That night Urban, Todd Blackledge and I went to dinner and Urban Meyer posed an interesting question to me.


He commented on all the Penn State players he had met and how impressed he was with them. He asked how we were able to maintain that standard and still win a lot of games.


I explained that we believed no recruit was bigger than the program. We believed that if we were honest about ourselves in the recruiting process that the kids who didn’t want to go to school and didn’t want to sacrifice their individual likes and dislikes for the good of the team would go elsewhere. We knew that there were a lot of good football players that could excel on and off the field and would come here for the right reasons.


Joe Paterno was incredibly confident and unyielding in one area—he had an unshakeable belief in who he was, what Penn State stood for and that in the end the adherence to those standards would be a rock foundation that could withstand the worst of storms.


He was right—for the last 7 years of his career Penn State logged the 6th-best record in the nation on the field—but more importantly stood alone as the only school in the country to win over 77% of our games and graduate over 80% of our players.


But the true test of the foundations occurred after Joe had died. When the NCAA wrongly accused and sanctioned Penn State they thought they could demoralize and destroy the people around the program and the fan base.


We all know they didn’t. If anything it has made Penn Staters stronger. It has toughened our resolve.


The roots of our tradition remain strong.


Despite those who have tried to wrongly re-write our history we know better. Despite the attempts to bury the past we know that the truth continues to rise—even if we must do so at the point of a spear wielded in the courts.


That battle is ongoing but as Penn Staters rest assured that our intentions are noble and are aimed at defending the tradition and honor of Penn State, Penn State Football and Joe Paterno and in that exact order. IN the song Hail to The Lion it says “Fight for Her Honor-Fight” so even if the administration will not defend our school we will not rest until we have done so for them.


With that being said we all understand that Tradition and history are not always positive things. No human institution is perfect—that is the truth about all that we do here.


There are proud moments and moments of pain as well. For all the good that this city has brought the world last year there are painful moments.


Last year in another act of gun violence that seems to play out over and over again in this country a young man in Charleston entered a church and opened fire and killed people gathered inside to pray.


But from those moments in our history if we pay attention and if we look for the good in one another we can grow and we can become better.


The people of this city focused on what united you rather than what divided you. In the midst of what happened at Penn State our community—despite divisive acts by the administration—our community focused on what we could do together to make the world better. That was the silver lining Joe Paterno wrote about in 2012 just days before he died in handwriting that was barely legible—the result of a brutal regimen of cancer treatments that would ultimately fall short.


In his book South Of Broad South Carolinian Pat Conroy wrote about a gathering of friends who were together in the same place 21 years earlier:


“We know better than anyone the immense, unanswerable powers of fate, and how one day can shift the course of ten thousand lives. Fate can catapult them into lives they were never meant to lead until they stumbled into that one immortal day.”


In many ways Penn Staters—no matter where we gather, no matter how much time passes—all of us who went through that one immortal day in November of 2011 understand the unanswerable powers of fate. One day did indeed shift the course of so many lives.


But if we look inside ourselves and into the truest soul of our Great University we will find that the things that will enable our university to endure is the Tradition of excellence that was created.


Many people over the last four years have asked me if I am mad at Penn State. They have asked how my family can remain loyal to Penn State after what happened to my father.


The answer is simple. Penn State did not do these things. Weak men and women in positions that required visionary leadership that they lacked—those people did these things partly because they never truly knew what made Penn State unique.


The sands of time will eventually sweep those people away and Penn State will endure. The tradition of excellence and the truth of our story are rising. Ultimately that will be our Tradition’s next great chapter—how we endured an onslaught from without and from within to emerge once again into the light of our truth.


Thanks for your time.

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